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hardest time for new campers. It’s tough to get your body heated up. These help.” Whether he’s thanking

During their time at Flash Lake, the group explores the frozen Minnesota land- scape while hiking to adjacent Ennis Lake. Matt Blades (opposite, top) helps the hikers tow a gear sled up a rocky incline. That night, Connecticut Eagle Scout Bob Day, outdoor chairman for Troop 428, warms up next to a fire (above) built to heat a survival lean-to, complete with foil-and-timber walls.

To create a warm night’s

sleep, Miller slept atop a tarp and within a fleece liner and a thick down-alternative sleep- ing bag (down has a tendency to crush beneath a sleeping person’s weight, inadequately trapping warm air). He also wore a wool stocking cap on his head and wool socks on his feet. “I thought maybe it would be either extremes, hot or cold, because it seemed like a lot of stuff to wear. But everything was breathable, and it didn’t get too hot either.” Of course, exhaustion encourages deep sleep. “I was worn out!” he, says, laughing. At the second camp—

home to the unit from Kansas—several boys emerge from Polar Domes and a wind-break structure. On the other side of their camp,

snoring echoes from a white Polar Dome that houses the three adult leaders. Once the boys are up, Varcho —who slept in his own ultralight, teepee-style tent—shows them how to get the stove going. He tells the boys how to heat packets of applesauce in the boiling water, handing the steaming packs out to the teens’ mittened hands. “What’s this?” several

inquire. “Keep it in your hands to

help you warm up,” he says, nodding at the packet of applesauce—an edible hand- warmer. “And when you’re hungry and you think it’s cooled to the right tempera- ture, eat it up!” Little tricks like these are secrets Varcho’s been gathering for years. “The morning is probably the

the boys for their hard work or encouraging them to help get breakfast going, Varcho models Northern Tier’s sig- nature leadership quality: a positive attitude. Adults may view cold-weather camping as another challenge or accom- plishment, but for youth the extreme weather can be intimidating. Varcho’s tireless energy is a trait he says he learned from his own Scout leaders and Bridges himself, Okpik’s creator. “A good attitude will keep you think- ing ahead and planning how you’re going to stay warm and safe,” he says. The Okpik program is

built to safely test their capa- bilities—leaders and Scouts. Today’s challenge includes a four-mile hike to Ennis Lake, a journey that will take them all day. The crew must hike in thick snow along rolling terrain—some using trekking poles and snowshoes—with small daypacks and a sled to carry their water and food. Along the way, the leaders

chat about the knowledge they’ve picked up during the last four days of training. “I’m surprised at how much we’ve learned about making things on the cheap—like water-bottle liners with pipe insulation or the felt mukluk [boot] liners,” Miller says. “We have a rural council, so accessibility like this is key.” Upon returning home, Miller and Pickens, who’ve traveled together on a winter-camping “research” trip, aim to revive the fourth-season program in

their West Virginia council. Several slow-moving hours

stumble by as the hikers walk single-file along a rock-and- snow trail, passing hundreds of birch trees and aromatic spearmint ground covering. The vibrant green Minnesota beauty appears shadowed by a gray sky that reflects the group’s mood. As if waiting for his cue,

Varcho chimes in with a favorite story—a tale he’s told so many times he’s perfected his comedic timing. We can’t do it justice here, but Steve Gleasman, a Scouter from northern Illinois who’s attending his ninth Okpik training this year, bellows with laughter at the punch line. “That’s probably the fourth time I’ve heard that Bald Eagle joke, and I laugh every time. I learn something new here every year,” he explains, “but Jim’s the reason why I keep coming back.” And Varcho will keep

coming back to “help carry on what was so important to Sandy”—helping Scouts succeed in a snow-blanketed wilderness, a task that may seem impossible to some. After three challenging days in the shivering-cold air, the group leaves Northern Tier armed with knowledge and Varcho-inspired positivity— ready to bring Scouts into the winter air with confidence. ¿

GRETCHEN SPARLING is Scouting magazine’s Associate Editor.

SIGN UP FOR this January’s Okpik Cold Weather Leader Training at Northern Tier at


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